[Update: Part 2 is here]
Re: Greg’s most recent post on the term “avant-garde”—I’ve already discussed this somewhat here, here and here, but to recap:
- The term’s early 19th-century Socialist origins have mostly been forgotten. And that’s fine—language changes—but, personally, I find it deliciously perverse that the original Avant-Gardists, the Impressionists, essentially stole the term from Socialists, for use as a marketing term.
- It seems to me that anyone who wants to use the term today—especially if they want to use it to refer to some progressive art that’s free from any capitalist influence—would have to account for that history.
- People mostly don’t, though. Instead, they just use it interchangeably with terms like “experimental” and “unusual” and “innovative.” I consider this conflation very wrong-headed, not to mention not all that useful.
- For one thing, it assumes an incorrect model of how art and innovation actually proceed. It begins by positing that there’s a single conservative high art world, which follows a long and noble yet conservative tradition, and that there’s a single low art world, which is popular and commercial (i.e., crass). And then it assumes that there’s a small band of daring creative pioneers, huddled in some corner of the culture somewhere, who pass all artistic innovation to both the highs and the lows. (It’s the art world version of Reaganomics.)
I don’t truck with any of that. I think it’s important to remember history (even as it changes); I think it’s important to be as clear as possible in one’s terminology; and I regret any and all myopic views of the culture. (Not to mention, the notion of the avant-garde is rather elitist and racist: it posits a view of history in which all innovation flows from middle- and upper-class white folks.)
One need only look at recent music history to put the lie to the term “avant-garde.” Today Facebook showed me the following ad:
Laurie Anderson, one of America’s most renowned and daring creative pioneers, returns to the Harris with her latest work, Delusion.
Now, I’m a big fan of Laurie Anderson. Her 1982 album Big Science might even make my Top 100 Albums of All Time list, were I ever feeling deluded enough to try making such a thing. And I won’t deny that Laurie Anderson has been influential. I won’t deny that she’s been innovative. But I don’t think she’s been one of America’s “most daring creative pioneers” (sorry, Laurie—I still love you!).
The simple truth is, Laurie Anderson has been just as influenced as she’s influenced. Let’s look at some of her work in a broader context, which I hope will explain what I mean…
Count Machuki: “Our Thing” (date unknown–1960s?):
King Tubby: “Murderous Dub” (c. mid-1970s):
DJ Kool Herc: “Merry Go Round” (1972):
How come no one considers Laurie Anderson a later generation dub artist, or hip hop artist? In “O Superman, ” she’s essentially rapping over loops. She also loves electronically processing her vocals, mixing in samples… Well, I think the answer’s simple: no one considers her as belonging to this lineage! Because dub and deejaying and hip hop aren’t perceived as having had any influence on early 1980s, white, experimental fine art!
Wendy Carlos: A Clockwork Orange soundtrack (1971):
Alan Parsons Project: “The Raven” (1975):
(It’s due to projects like the above that we now regard The Alan Parsons Project as Essential Avant-Garde.)
Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs et al, Einstein on the Beach (1976):
Can: “Dizzy Dizzy” (1977):
(Can was just as influenced by “Jimi Hendrix and things like Sly Stone” and “Frank Zappa” as it was by the Velvet Underground and the Minimalists and Karlheinz Stockhausen.)
Kraftwerk: “The Robots” (1977):
Brian Eno: “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978):
Klaus Nomi: “Lightning Strikes” (1979–1983):
Nomi began performing this 1960s pop song in the late 70s:
He recorded the following album/video version in 1982:
Crash Course In Science: “Cardboard Lamb” (1981):
Talking Heads: “Once in a Lifetime” (1981):
The choreographer for this video was Toni Basil, best known for her 1982 hit song “Mickey”:
…a video that clearly influenced the later Talking Heads video. (The song was recorded and the video planned in 1980, before she worked with David Byrne.) (Basil also acted in Five Easy Pieces—she’s one of the two hitchhikers that Jack Nicholson picks up before his infamous chicken salad scene. Talk about crossing fine art with popular culture!)
…OK, so now we finally get to Laurie Anderson’s breakout single:
Laurie Anderson: “O Superman (For Massenet)” (1981):
Afrikaa Bambaataa: “Planet Rock” (1982):
…I don’t want to deny any of the above artists their respective innovations; all of these artists were innovative, in their own ways. They’re all different from one another, even while in some ways they’re similar. They’re all good. They’re all some of my favorite musicians.
But I think it’s clear even from this brief survey that Laurie Anderson was part of a world, an underground music scene, several underground music scenes. Living in downtown New York, she had access to:
- the beginnings of hip hop;
- experimental German rock;
- the burgeoning world music scene of Can and Brian Eno;
- the original New Wave scene at CBGBs;
- and the “second wave” more pop-oriented New Wave scene that followed right behind that;
…among many other things. She borrowed from all of these scenes and aesthetics, in addition to inventing some of her own things. She was and is a great musician and artist, who made important work in response to the culture at large.
But she wasn’t some polar explorer, a daring innovator remarkably different from everyone else at the time. Looking back now, she appears very much so of a certain time and place. She has always been surrounded by dozens and dozens of like-minded artists.
That is not, however, how we remember her today. A Google search on “‘Laurie Anderson’ avant-garde” retrieves about 555,000 results. Her Wikipedia entry lists her as an experimental musician, and contains five instances of the word “experimental,” and two instances of the word “avant-garde.” You sometimes find her albums placed in avant-garde sections in record shops.
Contrast that with DJ Kool Herc: a Google search for “‘DJ Kool Herc’ avant-garde” finds about 15,000 results. (Searching for just “‘Kool Herc’ avant-garde” bumps that number up to 28,100.) And his Wikipedia entry contains neither the word “experiment” nor “avant-garde”; he’s listed as a hip hop artist.
And yet I’d argue that DJ Kool Herc was much more avant-garde than Laurie Anderson: his mixing of the break sections from funk albums (as opposed to dub albums) essentially birthed hip hop; he introduced toasting to a broader US audience, and helped push it more toward rapping; and he invented terms like “b-boys.” How much more culturally advance guard can one get? And he was doing much of this in isolation; he was an immigrant who brought Jamaican musical styles to his new country. To establish his AG cred even further, he never had any commercial success (unlike Anderson), instead directly influencing other artists (Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, the Sugarhill Gang) who profited from his innovations, which they disseminated far and wide.
But this is an old story; “avant-garde” refers mostly to either an established genre, or is a marketing term. The Impressionists who called themselves (or let themselves be called) the Avant-Garde—Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley—were following in the tradition of Boudin, Courbet, Gleyre, Jongkind, Manet. If Monet was an avant-gardist, then so was Manet, and then so was Courbet, Goya, Hals, Velázquez… At some point, I think, you have to throw your hands up and acknowledge that you’re dealing with a very long tradition—with several very long traditions—and not some momentous “advance guard” of the coming cultural revolution.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably selling something (most likely, their art).
25 thoughts on “Why I Hate the Avant-Garde, part 1”
See also “Tradition and the Individual Talent” by TS Eliot.
I love this. I like the throwing your hands up and realizing everything comes from something. If everyone knew this, there would be a lot less pretentious crap out there.
Good post Adam. Also good comment Andrew.
The key is to remember that “avant-garde” is a term with a history; it doesn’t mean the same across time/space.
The way “avant-garde” is used today assumes an unchanging lineage, even an unchanging interpretation of that lineage. For example, one staple of contemporary poetry’s idea of the avant-garde is the materiality of the signifier, and when studies will go back and show how this is true, but as Michael North pointed out in his study of Camera Works, a lot of the “avant-garde” people writing in the 10s and 20 were in many ways about the opposite: the absolute immersion, absorption. But its means to that absorption looks quite a bit like contemporary writers doing the opposite… Again, as you showed in a post about influence, there is a lot of noise in ‘influence’.
Avant-Garde these days has become a kind of academic discipline; aka “poetics.” I’m not sure when people started using the term again. Certainly in the 90s, people referred to postmodern or experimental writing, I think, but not so much avant-garde. I think it has to do with the academy absolutely. I didn’t start using it until I went back to get my PhD in 2003, when i was informed that what I was interested in was “the historical avant-garde.” I thought I had been interested in a more European-based idea of modernism. My guess is that the return to the term “avant-garde” has to do with the institutionalization of language poetry in the 90s. But I could be wrong. It would be interested to read a study of the usage of the term, much like Calinescu traces its usage up to the neo-avant-garde of the 1960s (Five Faces of Modernism).
Of course most of the historical avant-garde is totally unknown in America. (Professor) Jed Rasula has edited a huge anthology of the historical avant-garde (a sequel of sort to his “imagining language” anthology) that Action Books is publishing in the fall that will cause some discussion about our ideas of both modernism and avant-gardism.
That Calinescu book is essential; it’s one of my favorites.
I wonder if the term avant-garde reemerged in the last decade or so thanks to the renewed interest in modernism (and the waning interest in postmodernism).
I seems that you don’t so much have a problem with avant-garde art or artists as with the term. Or maybe not even with the term but with the way it’s been abused. I think it has its uses, but as all terms with a longish tradition, it’s really a multiplicity of terms and carries a certain historical baggage.
As far as the historical avant-gardes (I like to use the term in plural), their influence by non-Western and folk art has been well documented.
Yes, my problem is with the term, not with the art itself.
It seems to me that, if anything, avant-garde is more of an historical term, meaning that it can only be properly applied with the hindsight of history. No one in 1972 knew that Kool Herc would be influential. By 1979, he was considered somewhat passé. But it’s easy to see today that he was on the advance edge of culture (well, part of the culture).
I agree that there are many avant-gardes, and that they aren’t a single unified scene. Indeed, the idea that they are only one scene/tradition—that is what I am most opposed to.
Has there been a waning interest in postmodernism? I hadn’t observed that. But hallelujah if it’s so.
We should also point out that the term has military origins. I wasn’t aware of it being adopted by nineteenth-century socialists or by the impressionists, for that matter. Can you provide a reference for this?
Sure thing: see this post:
…in particular, this section:
– – – – – – – – – –
The term “avant-garde” predates the Impressionists; it was first recorded in the 1825 Saint-Simonian essay “L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel” (“The artist, the scientist and the industrialist”), where it has a very different meaning. That essay called upon artists to serve as the advance guard of the utopian socialist revolution:
“It is we artists who will serve as your vanguard; the power of the arts is indeed most immediate and the quickest. We possess arms of all kinds: when we want to spread new ideas among men, we inscribe them upon marble or upon a canvas; we popularize them through poetry and through song; we employ by turns the lyre and the flute, the ode and the song, the story and the novel; the dramatic stage is spread out before us, and it is there that we exert a galvanizing and triumphant influence. We address ourselves to man’s imagination and to his sentiments. We therefore ought always to exert the most lively and decisive action.”
(Henri de Saint-Simon was a major influence on Karl Marx. Some attribute this tract to him; others to his follower Olinde Rodrigues.)
As Matei Călinescu notes in Five Faces of Modernity (1987):
“By the mid-nineteenth century, the metaphor of the avant-garde had been used by social utopists, reformers of various sorts, and radical journalists, but, to my knowledge, had scarcely been used by literary or artistic figures.” (108)
Călinescu sees the term starting to shift toward its more modern usage in 1856, in the literary criticism of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. But even then the term,
“[f]requently used in the political language or radicalism, […] tended to point toward that type of commitment one would have expected from an artist who conceived of his role as consisting mainly in party politics. That was perhaps one of the reasons why Baudelaire, in the early 1860s, disliked and disapproved of both the term and the concept.” (109)
By the time of (and partially due to) Manet and his fellow Impressionists, “avant-garde” had come to mean a group of artists whose work is initially rejected by authority, but that eventually comes to be accepted by society. (Visit any local art fair today, and you’ll see the Impressionists’ long-lasting influence.)
– – – – – – – – – –
…Thanks for your comments, Josef! A
You’re totally right. But then WTF do we call … that certain style of music… if not ‘avant garde’ and if ‘experimental’ is likewise considered inadequate or inaccurate (which it almost always is) ?
For the sake of discussion, let’s say we’re talking about the music of… Jean Dubuffet, Takehisa Kosugi, and Maryanne Amacher. So it’s (taking their career output as a whole) not sound sculpture, minimalism, musique concrete, or any other sub classification of the larger category. It’s not free improv, or at least not exclusively, and not jazz, classical, new age, or within any other obvious convenient term.
I agree that this is a challenge, but it’s one that arises in many places, not just in classical music. Because there is hybridity and innovation everywhere. So you have a band like Xiu Xiu, which synthesizes elements of free jazz, post-punk, pop, industrial, glitch, classical percussion, gamelan, folk, and more… Not surprisingly, their Wikipedia page begins, “Xiu Xiu is an American avant-garde group […]”.
Xiu Xiu’s one of my favorite bands, but I wouldn’t call them “avant-garde.” Maybe they are; time will tell. But they seem to me mainly a very experimental indie rock band. Which is a fine thing to be!
I’d suggest that critics pick a term that’s closest to the musician’s core identity (e.g., Maryanne Amacher was a sound installation artist), and then point out if they’re particularly experimental (Maryanne Amacher was an experimental sound installation artist).
I have no problem with the term experimental; I think it’s very useful. I have my own particular definition of it, though: “that art which takes innovation as its dominant.”
I guess what I’m ultimately asking for is more consideration of these terms; it seems to me that a lot of artists and critics use them indiscriminately, and often for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual work. (E.g., when I was younger and stopped writing realist fiction, and started writing metafiction, I called myself an experimental writer. Never mind the fact that there was nothing experimental about my metafiction. Hell, my realist fiction was probably more experimental than my metafiction, which was utterly banal…)
(I have less problem, btw, with artists using them indiscriminately than I do with critics. I don’t expect artists to be able to describe their work. Critics, though, should try to be articulate.)
Good points Adam.
I tend to agree that a critic can go ahead and use a more detailed term. I think I do that when I am talking about other musicians where the audience is assumed to have some basic background.
Sometimes ‘experimental’ is a good term, but not always. It feels to me like it has a shelf life relative to the origin of the music; at some point it’s just not an experiment anymore.
‘Indeterminate’ was correct for some pieces of music, but not that many.
My main issue is that as a musician and a music fan interacting with all kinds of people, I sometimes need to be able to quickly answer or refer to broad style without wanting to get bogged down in details or explaining my terms.
I wouldn’t want such a term to do a lot of collateral damage to the label-ees , and there’s no doubt that it’s such a broad realm of music that no one term will ever be perfect.
The best I have at the moment is to call the music “out there”, which is vague and subjective yet usually does the trick without fully pressing the anti-elitist button in people as ‘avant garde’ does.
I’m enjoying your blog.
I’m in total agreement. This is where that genre/principle conflict comes in. Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963) is historically an experimental film—it was very experimental when he made it—but there’s nothing much experimental about it today. Making something like it now would be pretty…moth-ridden. (Which doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t do it, if they want to. People should do what they want. But I couldn’t make a movie like it and fairly call it experimental, I think.)
Adorno described this phenomenon pretty well (see, for instance, Aesthetic Theory). As he pointed out, Beethoven was once radically experimental; today he’s used to sell cars. He’s become a cliché of what classical, not experimental, music sounds like.
…I suppose my main beef is with artists and critics who are describing today’s old hat stuff as being experimental and avant-garde, just because it looks like older experimental and avant-garde stuff. Or who are using those labels to sell their work, or to scare away more mainstream audiences (which happens a lot).
Or who are doing all of those things by upholding very proprietary traditions. I find it curious, for instance, how a lot of experimental/AG film critics so dislike Matthew Barney’s films. Fred Camper, to name but one such critic, has repeatedly denounced them for not being conventional enough:
I can see how that might cause one to not like Barney’s films (even though I disagree with Camper entirely), but I fail to see how such critics can then dismiss Barney’s work as not being experimental. (Discussion of Barney was not allowed on Frameworks, which led to lots of arguments and name-calling.)
I eventually concluded that what Camper and others disapprove of is how Barney is cheerfully (and successfully) working outside their established notion of the experimental/avant-garde: his precedents aren’t Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner etc….and yet he claims to be experimental! (Or others, like Barbara Gladstone, claim that he is.) In other words, what really bothers them is how Barney’s making experimental films that don’t fit the tradition that Camper et al think they own. They want to possess and define the avant-garde, and they hate anyone who challenges that.
(I should note that I really like a lot of Camper’s criticism. But he turns utterly myopic once Barney’s name is mentioned.)
…Anyway. As for describing experimental work to others, lately I’ve been taking a page from Dalkey Archive Press, and not using the term at all, because it’s often a scare term that signals, “Don’t pay attention to this!”
So when I showed my mom Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s Hausu (1977) this past Christmas, I just told her it was a funny horror film that used a lot of conventions from 1970s advertising; I didn’t play up its bizarre or weird elements, pitching it as something she’d be unfamiliar with, or not smart enough to get.
And she loved it! Which only makes sense: Ôbayashi’s film can be as experimental as it is because he rooted it in some pretty familiar territory: the haunted house movie. My mom understood the basic plot and structure the second she started watching it (all of the girls were going to die, one by one), which left her free to enjoy Ôbayashi’s innovative treatment of such hackneyed material.
“In other words, what really bothers them is how Barney’s making experimental films that don’t fit the tradition that Camper et al think they own. They want to possess and define the avant-garde, and they hate anyone who challenges that.”
Exactly. And that’s how the loyal cadre of defenders of the faith (who consider themselves to be unusually enlightened – which is both true and false) turn into the Eurocentric arbitrary gatekeepers, with a conservatory mentality.
Ultimately we’re talking about narcissism in an elite group. Starting with a huge vested interest in defining themselves a certain way, they must be able to place limits on what is edgy, hip and transgressive, or else their own limits make them obsolete. It has a lot to do with male insecurity and often it also involves race.
This is as true of highly educated post modernists as it is of ageing rock/blues guitarists in cover bands. This is why we still have this fiction that “rock and roll” is somehow a different style of music than “rhythm and blues” circa the late 40s/early 50s, why your parents cannot accept Yoko Ono or any hip hop artist as being “musicians”, as well as why certain youthful, low budget, relatively untrained artists in nominally “fine arts” fields as you have described cannot yet be accepted by their respective establishments.
Not that there cannot also be kids with computers making derivative work of little or no objective value, but that’s where we need a more detached style of critic to help outline the criteria for distinguishing one from the other.
Another thing to add to the mix would be Peter Burger’s book Theory of the Avant-Garde in which he describes a very particular, historically circumscribed notion of the avant-garde – that a “real” avant-garde art is that which critiques what he calls the “institution of art” rather than just innovating in terms of style. He says that this critique was only possible once bourgeois (European) art separated itself entirely from everyday life and social function into a new realm of experience (ie: aesthetic). This happened only with the Aestheticism of the 1890s and Dada’s emergence in the 1910s was the first instance of what he calls the “historical avant-garde”, one that didn’t merely innovate in terms of style but critiqued the very institution of art in bourgeois society (an institution like, say, the police, the army, the university etc).
The book is from 1972, and there have been a lot of critiques of his position since, but I think it’s useful, especially as he writes about the neo-avant gardes of the 60s (he uses Warhol as an example) who actually institutionalise the very critique of the institution of art, thereby making it toothless, just another innovation in style…
I wonder whether there is anything today that would actually fit his definition of avant-garde, or whether it is all in the realm of stylistic innovation.
Thanks for the comments, Mark. I don’t know that book, and will have to take a look.
One thing that comes to my mind right away is: what does it mean to critique an institution? Because critiques can be direct and didactic, but they can also be behavioral. I don’t like cars, so I don’t own one, and I don’t like TV, so I don’t watch it. I like to think that I’m living a critique of those aspects of contemporary culture, even if I don’t go around openly criticizing cars and TV. (My thinking here is strongly informed by Curtis White, who advocates that people live their politics—that they imagine a different, better future, then live that future now, as much as it’s possible.)
In a similar vein, DJ Kool Herc wasn’t one to proselytize—his music isn’t overtly critical or political—but he played mainly house parties, and didn’t record his work. He just spent the 70s making his innovative music, which a lot of people went on to copy and develop (and record, and profit greatly from). …Can his artmaking be viewed as a behavioral critique of the recorded music industry? Or was he just doing his thing? Is there a difference in this case? I think those are difficult questions to answer.
Because on some level, I think that we have to ascribe political content to alternative behavior, and to alternative aesthetics. Direct, vocalized critique can’t be the only form of critique. (This is partly because the mainstream channels for it are often so controlled, that one must make great compromise in order to gain them. This is one of the central problems in politics: a politician who thinks the system is a sham must participate in that system in order to gain a platform from which to say that.) Counter-cultures are critical and revolutionary precisely because they offer ways of living that are opposed, or substantially different from, the dominant culture. Dropping out, becoming a hippie or a bohemian, shunning work, growing your own food, wasting your time making weird art that no one may ever appreciate—all of these things are political acts (to greater and lesser degrees). If enough people do those things, the dominant way of living weakens, and must change. (“What if they held a war, and nobody came?”)
This leads back, as all my thinking tends to, to Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, in particular his essay “Art as Device”: the purpose of art is to refresh life, and wake us up whenever we become inured to everyday existence. This isn’t too far away from Theodor Adorno’s ideas about how art lives, offering sites of resistance against the Culture Industry.
Another way of looking at it: Walking art is a relatively new subgenre of performance art. And some walking artists, like Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, are working largely within the gallery system, exhibiting artifacts and records of their long walks. To some extent, they’re suggesting an alternative way of living—going on long walks is an inherently political act these days, I’d argue—but they’re also not kicking against the pricks of the mainstream art scene. Other walking artists, like Andy Goldsworthy, have capitulated even more to the demands of commercial art; his walks are mainly about producing commodities: pretty books and calendars you can purchase in the gift shop. (Mind you, I like different aspects of all of these artists.)
Meanwhile, other walking artists are much less eager to participate in the art world’s gallery system: take for instance the underground Chicago artists Michelle Tupko, Amira Hanafi, and Aurora Tabar, all of whom have been leading group walks for the past few years (Michelle and Amira have since moved elsewhere). Nothing was for sale; they were just asking people to abandon their daily routines and rituals, and to spend a whole day here and there experiencing Chicago in a very different way: Michelle led a series of silent walks at dawn and at sunset, asking participants to focus, while walking, on particular parts of their bodies. Amira did a series of walks where she and others walked underneath the entirety of the 90/94 overpass, from north to south.
I’d argue that these walks were very political, very critical activities—critical of many institutions, including the art world. It so happens that all three of these artists think of their work this way, and can speak about it very eloquently along those lines. But if they didn’t, or couldn’t, that wouldn’t make what they’ve been doing any less political, or critical (in my estimation).
…Well, you’ve given me lots to think about. Thanks again for the comments!
This is a really good article. Well done. Learned quite a bit. Good choice of musical examples – Never thought about King Tubby’s unique take on Dub, but you’re right.
BTW, Tony Basil played a prostitute in Easy Rider.
BTW, the first rap song was “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” by Napoleon the 14th, recorded in 1966.
Your methodology is partially flawed, in that typing vague search terms into Google does not necessarily indicate a relationship between the terms:
Laurie Anderson + avant garde: About 500,000 results
Laurie Anderson + Rolling Stones: About 857,000 results
Laurie Anderson + blues: About 1,850,000 results
And yet nobody would suggest that Anderson is a bluesy artist similar to the Rolling Stones. Using an internet search algorithm to suggest a correlation is not, to say the least, ideal…
There’s merit in your criticism, but I mainly wanted to demonstrate that folks aren’t calling DJ Kool Herc an avant-garde/experimental artist.
Also, all one need do is scan the Google results to see that the term “avant-garde” is frequently being directly applied to Laurie Anderson. Whereas, as you note, no one is calling her a member of the Rolling Stones, or a blues artist. Although it would be fun to argue that she’s both…